CINCINNATI - Once upon a time, men strode on stage dressed in colorful dresses, long wigs and facial makeup, much to the delight of enthusiastic audiences.
That time was the Medieval and Renaissance periods in England, when social custom dictated women shouldn’t appear in theater productions. For more than 1,000 years, so-called “boy players” filled female roles.
Flash-forward to today, and everything old is new again.
Drag culture is flourishing across the United States and Cincinnati is no exception. The cross-dressing style of performance features a man – usually gay – affecting a hyper-stylized version of womanhood, often set to a disco beat.
Thanks in part to the popular “RuPaul’s Drag Race” reality show on the Logo cable TV network, drag queens have been thrust into the public eye in a way they never have before.
And mainstream audiences are taking notice.
The Queen City has two clubs – The Cabaret and Diamond Palace – devoted to showcasing drag performers. A third, Old Street Saloon, is located in Monroe. Several other gay bars around town feature drag queens at least one night a week, knowing it’s a surefire tactic to attract crowds.
As part of Gay Pride Month festivities, a Pride Ball will take place at Diamond Palace on Saturday.
Many of those crowds include straight clientele. As Middle America becomes more comfortable and accepting of drag performers, some may wonder: What drives a person to become a drag queen?
A Pretty Penny Always Turns Up
Perhaps the best-known drag queen in Cincinnati is the statuesque Penny Tration, the 6-foot-2-inch show director at The Cabaret, a club located above Below Zero Lounge at 1122 Walnut St. in Over-the-Rhine.
On a recent Friday night, Penny is in full regalia – a shimmering leopard print gown and a frosted wig, teased high like a character from “Dynasty” – as she instructs some first-timers how to behave at a drag show.
Penny Tration (Jessica Noll/WCPO Digital)
“It’s like a strip club. They’re going to come out here and you’re going to give them a dollar in appreciation for them coming out,” Penny tells the audience, filled with visitors from Tennessee, Arkansas and elsewhere, all in town for a teachers conference.
“If you don’t have a dollar, steal from one of your friends,” she adds, while faux-flirting with a straight and slightly inebriated Southern man seated at the front table. “Even if you don’t like them and don’t want to give them a dollar, you are obligated to clap. It was free to get in, it’s free to get the ---- out.”
Like most drag performances, Penny’s typical routine includes a large dose of bawdy banter about sex, gender and fashion sense that veers into NC-17 territory, but in a good-natured way.
Imagine a modern version of Mae West, in size 13 shoes.
Penny is the stage name of Tony Cody, an Italian-Jewish Cincinnati native who lived for several years in New York, where he worked for the Ogilvy and Mather advertising firm. He returned to Ohio in early 2002 to be near his family.
Cody first performed in drag as a lark, after being badgered by friends into appearing in an AIDS benefit show in 1992. He was 21.
“I don’t know that I was interested at all,” Cody said. “They just thought it would be funny because I was a cute little Italian boy with curly hair and it would be good to get me in drag.”
“I never thought it would be a job,” he said. “I never thought it would be anything more than a joke for a fundraiser.”
Intrigued, Cody began performing later that year under the name “Drag Queen Helga.” Shortly thereafter, he was served with a cease and desist order from a performer in Oklahoma who had the copyright to the moniker.
Drag queens, he quickly learned, may joke on stage but they take their livelihood seriously.
Now 41, Cody honed his Penny Tration persona over the years by performing on the New York drag circuit, then at local clubs like The Dock and Adonis.
July 1 marks his 20th anniversary as a drag queen. Cody began performing full-time in 2008, after he was laid off as a project coordinator with FRCH Design Worldwide.
“Until about five years ago, drag was always a hobby to me. I never expected to make any money at it. It was like building a Model T in your garage, it was a hobby,” Cody said. “And then I lost my job and the economy went to ----, so I thought I’d give it a go full-time and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Next page: New generation drag
Across town, drag queens of another sort are busy sashaying their way down a catwalk under the nurturing gaze of Jessica Dimon.
Dimon, 31, is the show director at her sort-of namesake club, Diamond Palace. Opened in December, the venue at 435 Elm St. in Downtown mostly attracts a younger audience that has different expectations about drag. It’s old school versus the next generation.
The difference begins with Dimon herself: Born male, she is a transgender person who began transitioning into a woman in 2008. Or at least that was the plan.
During the last five years, Dimon has gotten breast implants, hormone treatments and laser hair removal. Although she now lives as a woman, she has chosen to keep her male genitalia.
“Some transsexuals go all the way,” Dimon said in her dressing room before a Thursday night show. “I’m one of the people who didn’t understand what transgender meant. Really, transgender is about whatever you feel about yourself, it’s not about what the world thinks.
“I like being both. I like living as a woman and all of that stuff, but I like having sex as a man,” she said. “So, I am basically finished with (transitioning).”
Inhabiting a curious spot between the traditional definitions of man and woman sometimes leaves Dimon feeling like an outsider.
Many transsexuals want to live a quiet life and want to blend in with their surroundings, Dimon said. And many older drag queens dislike transsexuals doing drag, sometimes calling them “cheaters.”
Dimon was born Jesse Fultz and grew up in Taylor Mill, Ky. His high school classmates didn’t know what to make of Fultz, but he knew the labels they attached to him weren’t quite right.
“I had a really hard time. In high school, I was transgender and didn’t know it,” Dimon said. “People would say, “Eww, you’re a fag’ or ‘Oh my God, you’re gay.’ And I was like, ‘No, that’s not me.’
“As a 16-year-old kid, you don’t know you feel like a woman,” Dimon said. “Something doesn’t make sense. You assume you must be gay. You assume you’re different but you don’t know where you fit.”
“When I came out as a gay man, it never felt right,” Dimon said. “When I would dress up as a boy, it would take me such a long time to go out in public as a boy. When I would go to work and wait tables, it was such a hard time to buy clothes as a boy or fix my hair like a boy’s.”
That’s where drag entered the picture. He tried it with a friend, Nomi Love, at 19 and found his niche for the first time.
“Drag became like an escape,” Dimon said. “During the day, I would be a boy and then five times a week at night, I would be a girl. And I didn’t realize then what I know now. When I was in drag, I was myself and when I was a boy, it was like I was an actor or pretending to be something I’m not.”
‘Beauty Comes At A Price’
Being a drag performer doesn’t come cheap.
Penny’s more traditional style of performance, with its emphasis on glamor and gowns, comes with a hefty price tag -- about $1,000 each month on costumes and another $200 on makeup.
“Beauty comes at a price,” Cody quips, as he begins his transformation into Penny.
Overall, it usually takes about 90 minutes for Cody to transform into Penny.
The Cabaret’s primary audience is gay professionals who work downtown. As a result, the club has a more upscale look, reminiscent of a swanky 1940s lounge, than the newer Diamond Palace.
When asked how much he makes in a typical week, Cody deadpans, “I make enough.”
Although Dimon’s prep time is about 20 minutes, the fact that she uses makeup even when she’s off-stage adds to the expense.
Dimon spent about $500 on her makeup set, and it costs about $50 monthly to restock items that run out.
In a good week, Dimon makes about $600. She spends at least half on new costumes, wigs and makeup to keep her look fresh.
“I do five shows a week plus I’m transgender, so makeup is a huge part of my life,” she said. ““Madonna taught me a lesson in life: If you become stagnant, people forget. So, I constantly try to find ways to renew myself.”
Given their dramatic personas, it’s not surprising that most drag queens sometimes cast a critical eye at each other.
Next page: Godmother of drag
In years past, the pair has co-hosted shows at Adonis. At other times, one or the other has taken to the Internet to criticize a costume choice or specific performance.
“Drag is not easy. It is a very cutthroat world,” Dimon said. “I believe that gay people are raised being bullied. So naturally, gay people know how to bully. They’re very critical. With us being in the spotlight, they’re extremely critical. If we do something wrong – we fall or our wig falls off – it is going to be everywhere, especially with social media being the way it is.”
Just like on reality TV, however, not all is as it appears.
“Lindsay Lohan is famous now for being a bad girl, and not all of it’s real. I do believe she is kind of a bad girl, but some of it is staged for publicity,” Dimon said. “I do that sometimes, on my own level. People say I am dramatic and all these other things but, in reality, I’m an entertainer.”
“Some people don’t like that. The older gays, they really don’t like all the drama,” she said. “But the young gays, they love it. My fan base is basically 18 to 25. If I’m not dramatic and over-the-top and doing something, they’re not going to like me and I’ll just be another girl on stage.”
All Hail The Queen
The godmother of all modern drag performers is of course RuPaul, the stage persona of RuPaul Andre Charles, who first rose to prominence in the 1990s with campy music videos like “ Supermodel of the World.” ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CtRneKv3F0)
But RuPaul’s career soared in February 2009, when “ RuPaul’s Drag Race” made its TV debut. The reality show features a bevy of performers from across the nation competing to become “America’s next drag superstar.”
With its fifth season just completed ( http://www.logotv.com/shows/rupauls_drag_race/season_5/series.jhtml), the show has catapulted from cult show to genuine phenomenon. In recent years, celebrity guest judges have ranged from actresses like Juliette Lewis and Jennifer Love Hewitt to singers like Natalie Cole and Kelly Osbourne.
“RuPaul played a huge part in the drag world in the ‘90s. It was her destiny, her job to make sure drag got to where it is today,” said Dimon, who tried out for the first season but didn’t make the cut.
“That show changed the face of drag and it’s more accepted now. If that show had never happened, I do believe we’d still be where we were five years ago.”
In 2012, Penny Tration became the first-ever contestant selected by viewers through online voting. Appearing on season five, she also was the first contestant voted off during that cycle.
Asked what the experience was like, Cody quickly replied: “Boot camp.”
“It was hard, long, physical, stressful and it is probably the most rewarding experience I have had in drag thus far,” Cody said. “It made drag more than a joke and I think that’s what RuPaul does, make drag more than a joke. It’s not a whole lot more than a joke – I mean, we’re still circus freaks. But it made it a whole lot more legit.”
Despite their differences, Penny and Jessica love to entertain, which is what keeps them coming back to the stage despite the grueling schedule and drunk hecklers.
“I’ve always wanted to be an entertainer, I just didn’t know how I could fit into that world,” Dimon said. “I would’ve loved to been in theater, but it just didn’t work out. I would’ve loved to been an actress or something like that.
“When I decided to do drag, I put on makeup, walked into a room and 300 people fell in love with me at that exact moment,” she said.
After two decades performing, Cody concedes doing drag has become more of a job. Still, it has its rewards.
“I think seeing people laugh and smile and enjoy themselves is universally appealing,” Cody said.
Cody’s advice for people interested in drag culture is to leave their preconceptions at the door. Just as there are many different types of people, there are many different styles of drags and motivations for doing it.
“If everyone thinks we want to be women, then we’ve done a good job with the illusion, done a good job with the pretense,” he said. “They have suspended their disbelief beyond the theater space we’re in. They’ve taken it home with them.”
“The truth is, most people who identify themselves as drag queens have no desire to be women. There are some that are transitioning, but most are just dudes playing dress up.”